Books Back Better
Sometimes a crisis presents an opportunity to rethink and become better
“Never let a good crisis go to waste,” as Churchill reportedly said in the wake of the Second World War. The idea is the more modern-day stuff of Naomi Klein, who argued in her 2007 book, The Shock Doctrine, that free-market opportunists are always, once mentored by the late economist Milton Friedman, are handy at every disaster with market liberalization policies that further their way of seeing the world.
Friedman himself put it this way: “Only a crisis—actual or perceived—produces real change. When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around.”
Klein argues that it’s high time the other side of the political spectrum make their own ideas more persuasively and forcefully available during times of crisis. It is, after all, during crisis—when everything we thought was okay suddenly goes wrong—that our minds open to new possibilities, new ways of seeing things.
And thus, new ways of doing things.
The left of the political spectrum is not really ignorant of this concept. Peter Beinart, writing for The Atlantic’s December 2018 issue, notes that economic crisis pushed President Roosevelt to the left. That doesn’t happen without the “radical leftists” on hand making their case during the Great Depression.
“Franklin D. Roosevelt did not take office promising a radically more equal America,” Beinart writes. “He simply experimented with policies to lift the country out of the Depression. … What transformed Roosevelt’s agenda was pressure from populist movements making leftist economic demands.”
These populist movements were bolstered by starving Americans, and that pressure led to the New Deal, which lifted millions from poverty and built a social safety net for those who fell through the economic cracks. In other words, crisis created the conditions to build a better society. Beinart also notes that civil-rights activists used showdowns with violent police forces to push John F Kennedy to “champion racial equality.”
Wherever your political leanings, or geographic location, you can’t look around your home (let alone the internet) without seeing signs of failure in our society: downtown vacancies or overcrowding, lines at food banks and employment offices, abandoned or crumbling houses, plastic-littered beaches (don’t dare look in the water), abuses of political or judicial or policing power, sick people without access to healthcare, overcrowded classrooms—the list is endless.
COVID-19 didn’t create crisis in our world, it exacerbated and exposed it. States of Emergency came with federal relief funds and provincial relief (in some jurisdictions) for daycares, education workers and renters. Funds that have since gone dry, leaving many vulnerable to prolonged joblessness and eviction.
Therein lies opportunity. Just as Martin Luther King provoked Bull Connor to show the world racism’s violent ugliness in order to move the US closer to racial equality, COVID-19 is showing us serious flaws—massive inequalities—in our emergency preparedness, healthcare, education and economic systems. They’ve always been there but decision makers were able to look away. Not anymore.
Now is our chance to change the world.
But how? How do we make it better? Black Lives Matter is shining under unprecedented levels of international attention. Activists have started a new movement with not-so-catchy, yet catching on all the same moniker: Defund the Police. It’s deeply controversial everywhere, not least of all in an Atlantic region that just experienced the worst mass shooting in Canadian history.
Scroll any given Twitter feed and you’re likely to eventually stumble away dazed and confused by the vitriol on all sides of any given political issue. Might I humbly suggest you find solace in books, where analysis runs hundreds of pages deeper? It is incredible, perusing any season’s catalogues from Atlantic Canadian publishers alone, how many of their books tackle these same issues the COVID-19 era has spotlighted. That was as true a decade ago as it is today.
These books, many of them written by Black and Indigenous authors, based on meticulous, probing research as well as lived experiences, offer perhaps the sagest guidance on how the world can build back better from covid. They give us pause to reflect not only on the moment, but on the past.
From that we can better understand our systems of healthcare, education, economics and justice. We can see what we’ve done right and where we’ve gone wrong. And we can surely build back better after covid: stronger, more equitable, healthier and more sustainable.
How the Atlantic Canadian book industry is building back
All of this raises the question of how the book industry, which has suffered major economic setbacks from covid, can itself build back better.
“With books, we had the products, the expertise, the talent, everything we needed to keep producing great books locally.”
Liot calls the global economic impact of COVID-19 a “frog in the pot” moment, meaning it is the time we gain awareness of problems that have long been escalating, but slowly—like a frog in a pot of slowly warming water.
“Consider the loss of local bookstores over the years. It was significant, and it reduced the clear availability of local books in retail. Suddenly, when you couldn’t get anything anywhere, the demand for local books went back up.”
But the desire for those books, he believes, already existed, it just wasn’t recognized. “People have a special relationship with local books; there’s a long tradition of revering local writers in this region. But we’ve learned that even traditional businesses need to be adaptive to change to survive.”
The biggest single change the industry has made is to focus more on the digital side of the business, e-books as well as online marketing strategies, where some authors have found large audiences via social media. The APMA had already begun new online campaigns before covid hit, working to better catalogue Atlantic publishers’ collections, taking advantage of unique local knowledge to gain an advantage over multinational publishers.
The association’s efforts in this regard has ramped up since March. “The community brand has taken prominence,” Liot says. “It’s about Atlantic Books.”
The prime example is the #TimetoReadAtlantic campaign, which was a two-year plan that became compressed into an intensive two-month period. The atlanticbooks.ca website created 12 thematic mini-collections of new and recent books, 156 books in all, branded with a teal lighthouse logo.
The APMA made a video advertisement and purchased space in various media to promote the site and its books. “We welcomed over 20,000 website visitors, sent thousands directly to bookstores and libraries, and made 7.5 million impressions of the #ReadAtlantic message,” Liot says.
The importance of partnerships between different players in the book world was also amplified. The APMA worked closely with library systems in Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Newfoundland and Labrador to feature their collections. The level of publisher participation impressed Liot.
“It makes for a great selection of books, with everything from boutique publishers in specific genre categories, poetry, French books, kids books, guidebooks, novels, et cetera. Guidebooks are selling off the shelves right now.”
One of the most interesting new partnerships to develop was between the APMA and Nova Scotia Community College (NSCC) on the Bound for Good corporate sales program, which resulted from an existing understanding of the value of Atlantic books for businesses to use as gifts and rewards. NSCC is the first corporate partner to participate.
“We had just launched the program when the pandemic hit,” Liot says. “Local books became more valuable for partners. International supply chains weren’t active. As gifts, local books curated to thematic needs of the client—it beats imported swag any day.”
NSCC’s participation came as the result of a chance encounter between Liot and Don Bureaux, the president of NSCC, who both happened to be eating breakfast at Kempsters, a family restaurant in Halifax. “I gave him my business card and said I have a crazy project idea I wanted to tell him about.”
Bureaux is a big supporter of local community, and a big reader.
As Atlantic publishers develop their technological sophistication, it enhances their power to do good things for local communities. “We’re going from manually curated lists that involved hundreds of spreadsheets, to the point where they can be curated with a couple of clicks,” Liot says.
This fall, the APMA ran its Voices campaign to amplify Indigenous and Black authors of Atlantic Canada. “That means more books of substance being exposed to more people, and that means better things happen. It’s part of an informal education process that I think can really improve the world.”
The next phase of targeted, curated reading lists is #TheGiftofReadAtlantic, which will use online tech to help consumers locate the book they want, for sale at the nearest possible location. It’s also a great tool for authors, when friends ask them, “Where should I buy your book?”
Crisis creates opportunity. It can also force the hand of book-industry traditionalists. Suddenly online tools are essential. Well, they always were. Crisis simply exposed that necessity.
—Chris Benjamin is the managing editor of Atlantic Books Today magazine and the author of Boy With A Problem, a collection of short stories set in the modern world.